POV: You are lost at the Venice Art Biennale (Photo: Sharon Lam; Design: Archi Banal)
POV: You are lost at the Venice Art Biennale (Photo: Sharon Lam; Design: Archi Banal)

ArtJune 6, 2022

Lost at the Venice Art Biennale

POV: You are lost at the Venice Art Biennale (Photo: Sharon Lam; Design: Archi Banal)
POV: You are lost at the Venice Art Biennale (Photo: Sharon Lam; Design: Archi Banal)

Sharon Lam goes in search of Yuki Kihara’s Paradise Camp, the New Zealand pavilion at the 2022 Venice Biennale.

It’s my first time at the Venice Biennale and I have already done it wrong. Mistake one: Not getting a proper press pass, not going to preview week, not attempting to crash any of the parties when Julianne Moore and Sally Draper were still in town. I am instead here with the general public, or at least the general Biennale public – retired South African couples and European teenagers on art school trips. Mistake two: Not reading until too late that the Biennale is closed on Mondays, shaving 1.5 days of Biennale time into 0.5 (the recommended time at the very minimum is 2.0). But it’s OK. I am here, “post”-pandemic, in Italy. I have eaten an inclusive breakfast of espresso, wax-paper wrapped regional ham and plastic-wrapped croissant and foil-wrapped soft cheese. I read five pages of Italo Calvino on the toilet afterwards. The sky is blue and the sun is a blinding white void. I am Marco Polo. I am a woman of the world. 

The Venice Biennale is the world’s oldest cultural biennale, having run for 127 years, alternating between the Art Biennale and the Architecture Biennale. Countries from all around the world send their best and brightest to exhibit upon the watery stages of Venice, with 200 artists from 58 countries in the 2022 edition. The artist representing New Zealand at the Art Biennale this year is Yuki Kihara, the pavilion is called Paradise Camp. I can’t wait to see it, it’s always exciting to see little Aotearoa in intérnationäle cöntextês, but first I must find it. And before I find it, I need to find my friend. 

In search of Paradise Camp (Photo: Sharon Lam)

I have arrived first and begin making my way through the Arsenale. This is the newer section originally set up for emerging artists and countries that don’t have a permanent pavilion in the Giardini (i.e. countries that were too busy being colonised and/or were too far from Italy to be relevant in the Biennale’s formative years. This includes New Zealand.) Immediately upon entry is a circular room with a five metre tall dark bronze bust of an eyeless woman. In the next 300m long room are glittering tapestries, terracotta Pokémon-esque brick ovens, watercolours of humanoid figures crying tears of pubes. I take as deep of a breath I can while wearing a FFP-2 face mask. Art

I still can’t find my friend. “I am past the giant dirt cube and am now at the rainbow curtains.” “I’m at the dripping lava..?” “Do you mean the dripping lava that could be crab pincers?” Already tired, I sit down on a bean bag in the form of the severed tail of a huge murine animal. The tail is accompanied by a video of some rat-humans playing chess with chunks of flesh. The contact with the hairy bean bag tail becomes repulsive and I leave. I finally find my friend in another video room, watching bedridden prosthetic-wearing children singing to their father about impending filicide in shrill Victorian British sing song-voices. It’s all quite horrible. 

horrible_tail.jpg (Photo: Sharon Lam)

This is the context in which my reading of the New Zealand pavilion is made – a sensory overload that swings between disgust, joy, dehydration and confusion. In an attempt to find order I grossly lump everything into Cool Stuff (the dripping lava, experimental upside-down films of nude people in a Finnish forest, cold sculptures of glass and sand) and Warm Stuff (small pastel paintings, disturbing but sentimental pencil sketches, friendly-seeming amorphic statues). The Warm Stuff makes me smile, linger and feel interested in the artist. The Cool Stuff makes me linger because it simply looks cool, makes me take out my phone and take blurry photos, while knowing that the artist would be intimidating and probably From Money. In terms of immediate draw, it’s hard for the Warm Stuff to compete with the Cool Stuff. The Warm Stuff is inherently quieter, it wants to lower the volume of the room before it speaks to you, but when it does, it is almost always more affecting than anything the Cool Stuff is apparently saying. 

Kihara’s work is Warm. It is only metres away from the dripping lava – The Maltese Pavilion – which is actually a “modern interpretation of the beheading of St John the Baptist”. Kihara’s work could not be any more different. While there is deep literature behind it – the entire body of work was first inspired by an essay written by academic Ngahuia Te Awekotuku on Paul Gaugin’s exoticised paintings of Tahitian people – the pavilion in Venice is a breath of warm, approachable air. The space itself is open and colourful. Rare for the Biennale, Kihara herself is literally in the work. In a video playing in the centre of the room, she talks to herself in the guise of Gaugin, and in group conversations with her collaborators from the fa’afafine community. We directly hear her voice, invited to listen. There is no esoteric layer of theoretical interpretation, these are real people. 

Yuki Kihara’s Paradise Camp (Photo: Sharon Lam)

On the walls, a photo series “upcycles” Gaugin’s paintings. The compositions reference his paintings, but the models are now spiritually centred, they look at the viewer and know they are being looked at, and control what is being seen. The lighting is uncanny, making the greens and blues of the “paradise” of Sāmoa unreal. Because of course, paradise is unreal. Sāmoa’s international image is, like many other islands under capitalism, manicured for tourism, erasing gender diversity and climate change. Another point of inspiration for Kihara was, after all, how fa’afafine were some of the first post-tsunami volunteers in 2009, but were not allowed to stay in the emergency shelters

I leave the New Zealand pavilion and find myself in a bright white room of grotesque ceramics, in the middle of them a chandelier of ceramic penises. I am back in the wider world, or at least the Latvian Pavilion. I power on. The Valentino-sponsored Italian pavilion is, unsurprisingly, about six times larger than any other and has specially enforced limited entry, making the experience inside more special and private. It’s best left undescribed, and I admit, very magical. The Spanish pavilion is the most pretentious, containing absolutely nothing other than bare white walls – a version of the building rotated 10 degrees as some sort of “critique”. The Finnish pavilion is a very clever commentary on social structures via training videos of shopping mall security guards. The Hong Kong pavilion features human hair in ways much more impressive than my shower drain. The Portuguese pavilion melts even my dry, jaded, dissociated heart, through a cacophonous room full of videos of children from all over the world playing their local games. But there is no other pavilion I see that has as strong or focused a stance on community and place than Kihara’s. Once the Biennale wraps up in November, Paradise Camp is planned to be shown in Sāmoa and then New Zealand – both a love letter and word of warning, returning home. 

Keep going!